I recently came across this article in the Wall Street Journal by theatre critic Terry Teachout about a production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, which had its permission for performance abruptly withdrawn by the playwright when it was discovered that massive cuts and changes were implemented on the 1964 script. The piece ignited a number of visceral reactions from me, many still unsorted.
I am fascinated by the attitude with which we reinterpret classics. Sure, the authors are dead, but there is this idea that if a piece of art is old, it is up for reinterpretation. We have dragged the Greeks, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc. through the mud with all of the rethinkings and restagings and rewritings, and why do we do that? Because the original works (and their authors) are brilliant pieces with depth that drills further the more they are explored. With this philosophy, reinterpretation is an ode to the original author, not a pillaging of their artistic intent. So it fascinates me that Brian Friel would be so resistant to rewritings. His works, including Dancing at Lughnasa, are universally regarded as contemporary classics, that unique genre that celebrates truly monumental works that have been created by and for our generation, but that we expect to last for generations to come. I have no doubt that in twenty or thirty years, Friel’s plays will be torn apart and pieced back together in unique ways that illuminate themes and speak to different experiences, but until then, we are restricted to the play as written.
But what about the production that Teachout references of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes that made the play ultra-contemporary, stripping it of as much of its period as possible without changing the text? The text is the same, but the intent of the play is completely different. Is that more or less of a theatrical sin than what Asolo Rep did to Philadelphia? What would Friel think if the piece was performed in a Standard American dialect with futuristic costumes and a space-age set?
I don’t have an answer to that question, and as much as I tend to side with the director in these situations (as I am one myself), I can see where Friel is coming from. One of the reasons why Beckett is so transformable into so many different contexts is because he (okay, his estate) is so strict about productions following the text so closely. That structured container is what allows directors to free their creativity, evidenced by the fact that iconic productions of Waiting for Godot are so notable because they are unique.
But then on the opposite side of the spectrum is my good friend (I wish), Charles Mee, who openly acknowledges that “There is no such thing as an original play.” He is open to radical interpretations and pillagings of his plays because he has done it so much himself. In some ways, in that way Mee has invited himself into the echelon of writers who can be pulled from and reinterpreted.
Although I have opinions on the matter, the excitement of contemporary theatre making is that there is no right or wrong answer; this debate is what makes our work fresh and relevant. The push and pull between directors and writers creates that friction where work is life or death. Is Asolo Rep in the right to edit Friel’s work? I don’t know; it actually seems like they were editing more for practical reasons than deeper seeded artistic ones, but I hope that it contributes to the dialogue about ownership over theatrical material.